GRAND UNION by Zadie Smith (Penguin, 256 pp., $27)
Having delighted the literary world for two decades with big, juicy novels that have already become classics ("White Teeth," "On Beauty," "NW," "Swing Time" and my favorite, "The Autograph Man"), Zadie Smith has given us two collections of shorter pieces: last year’s compilation of essays and reviews "Feel Free" (actually her second book of essays) and now her first collection of short stories, "Grand Union."
A couple of things are always true about Zadie Smith, in any genre — she has a delicious wit that makes her work a pleasure even when the themes are serious and the humor is black. Also, she has an effortless fluidity in capturing all the nuances of contemporary culture (with regard to slang, identity politics, social media, music, etc.) Reading her is like hanging out with the cool kids.
Albeit linked by those eternal verities, the 19 stories in "Grand Union," 11 of them previously unpublished, occupy a huge range. There is historical fiction, magical realism, dystopian/speculative fiction and autofiction; there are political fables, humor pieces and stories that fall into none of these categories.
“ ’The thing about undergarments,’ Dee said, ‘is that they can only do so much with the cards they’ve been dealt? Like Obama.’ ” We are in the dressing room with drag queens Dee Pendency and Miss Adele, and Miss Adele’s corset has just ripped in half as Dee was trying to fasten its hooks. The hilarious opening scene of “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” gives way to the main setting of the story, the Clinton Corset Emporium. “Clearly it lacked many of the things a girl expects from an emporium — background music, hangers, shelves, mirror, lights, price tags, et cetera. Bras and corsets were everywhere, piled on top of each other in anonymous white cardboard boxes to the ceiling.”
Quickly, the mood of the story darkens. The proprietor, who ignores Miss Adele, is listening to talk radio in a foreign language, turned up very loud. Miss Adele is sure she can tell what it is saying — RAGE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS, RIGHTEOUSNESS AND RAGE. As he continues to ignore her, his wife, in a booth with another customer, calls to their Asian employee to help her. The scene becomes increasingly chaotic, as the man and his wife begin to scream at one another.
As the marital argument continues into the beginning of Miss Adele’s fitting, she becomes convinced that both the radio and the conversation are about her. “ABOMINATION, yelled the radio. Get it out of my store! cried the man, in all likelihood. Have mercy! pleaded the woman, basically.”
For the rest of the story, the tension keeps ratcheting up. It’s like watching a waiter carrying a teetering pile of plates — they keep almost crashing to floor, then are righted, wait, no, they’re going over — it’s almost unbearable to watch Miss Adele fall victim to the pressure on the weakest points in her psyche, the places where she stores a lifetime of collected hurts. What a ride, from the high camp of the opening scene to the miserable, anti-bravura ending.
“Two Men Arrive in a Village” is one of the political fables in the collection. It narrates the archetypical rape and pillaging, as it has played out for time immemorial, the world over. “Sunset has historically been a good time for the two men, wherever they have arrived, for at sunset we are all still together: the women are only just back from the desert, or the farms, or the city offices, the children are playing in dust near the chickens or in the communal garden outside the towering apartment block.” Brutally clever, the kaleidoscope of details continues as the uni-story unfolds to its whiplash conclusion, which you have to look at a minute to get.
Smith’s tragedies are balanced by her comedies, among which “Escape From New York” is foremost. In this one, Smith takes on the report, originally in Vanity Fair, that during the attacks of 9/11, Michael Jackson drove Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of New York to Ohio, stopping at every KFC and Burger King. Her Michael Jackson has the epiphany that “his real advantage, in this moment, over every other person in the IHOP and most of America: nothing normal had ever happened to him, not ever, not in his whole conscious life.”
I could go on, but I’d rather you just read the book.